The grand old lady of West African folklore, from the 1960s onwards Peggy Appiah produced a stream of immediately attractive illustrated books retelling Ashanti stories for both African and European audiences. Making her home in Ghana since 1954, she was also deeply involved in its turbulent history after her marriage to Joe Appiah, a leading political figure for over 30 years.
Born in 1921, she was the fourth child of (Sir) Stafford Cripps, the future Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer. Growing up in the heart of Gloucestershire at Goodfellows, the family's opulent Tudor farmhouse, she spent an happy childhood playing in the stream that ran through the garden or else going for pre-breakfast walks, sometimes accompanied by three goats and a dog.
Privately educated at Norland Place and Queen's College in London, then Maltman's Green in Buckinghamshire, she rejected university in favour of spending a year in Italy with the painter Aubrey Waterfield. Returning to Britain in 1939, she enrolled at the Whitehall Secretarial College, learning skills that were shortly to become extremely useful. Travelling out via Canada, the Pacific Ocean and then Manchuria in 1940 with her mother and a sister in order to join her adored father in Moscow, she was able to give him valuable practical help during the next eight months in his work as ambassador.
Inclined to be earnest, munching carrots and drinking Evian water at parties in the family tradition while others turned to stronger fare, she had begun to relax a little before her next move. This was to Iran after the German invasion of Russia, where she continued her secretarial work at the Tehran consular department. Finally returning home in 1944, she relocated to the Ministry of Information, employed in its Russian section.
Strongly influenced by her father's commitment to the ideals of Christian Socialism, Peggy along with one of the prime minister Clement Attlee's daughters worked after the Second World War in the Youth Department of the World Council of Churches. She also served on the executive committee of Racial Unity, a group dedicated to achieving harmony between different ethnic groups. It was there that she came across Joe Appiah, a high-born Ghanaian studying law at the Middle Temple and also President of the West African Students Union.
Their marriage in 1953 and move to Ghana shortly after the death of her father caused a predictable flutter in the British press. Four years later on a visit home, the Daily Sketch could still describe the children she now had as "the two best-connected piccaninnies ever to hit an English village".
Settled in Kumasi, the capital of Ashanti, Peggy eventually had four children. Much time was also spent supporting her husband, an early opponent of the corrupt Nkrumah government and at one time detained for over a year. Deeply knowledgeable about Ashanti culture, she decided to start writing so that native children could have access to a literature of their own. "The wind in the willows is the same one that breathes through the palm fronds," she wrote. She argued for the "universality of children's lore".
An early successful book was Ananse the Spider: tales from an Ashanti village (1966). This mischievous spider-god, whose adventures often resembled those found in both Aesop and Brer Rabbit, was to re-appear in The Children of Ananse (1968). Other stories concentrated more on African rustic and forest life, in particular A Smell of Onions (1971), a tangled tale of village life originally intended for adults. There were also shorter books with African backgrounds written in simple English for use mainly in schools. Some of these concentrated on her great love of animals and birds. Others like Busy Body (1995) and The Rubbish Heap (1995) took on more urban themes.
Missing her always entertaining but sometimes erratic husband, who died in 1990, Peggy Appiah continued writing, producing Thought Birds (2001), a short book of poems, to celebrate her 80th birthday. But there was one more major undertaking still to come. With her son, Kwame Anthony Appiah, by now a professor of philosophy at Princeton University and a well-known writer and novelist, she took the leading part in co-authoring Bu Me Bé: Akan proverbs (2003).
She had long collected Ashanti gold weights - weights made of brass for weighing gold that often bore art illustrating proverbs. In 1977 she published Why the Hyena Does Not Care for Fish, and Other Tales from the Ashanti Gold Weights. Bu Me Bé was an annotated collection of 7,500 proverbs in Twi, the language of Ashanti. Its scholarship derives from an abiding love for the country she had lived in for over 50 years.
Her father, Stafford Cripps, had become a King's Counsel in 1927, one of the most formidable barristers of the age - or any age - a Bristol MP for 20 years, a Fellow of the Royal Society and a hugely significant Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1947 to 1950, writes Tam Dalyell. Her paternal grandfather, Alfred Cripps, who was created Lord Parmoor in 1914, was Lord President of the Council in the first Labour government of 1924 and Lord President and Leader of the House of Lords, 1929-31. A prominent delegate to the League of Nations, he was married to Theresa Potter, sister of the social reformer Beatrice Webb.
Her mother was Dame Isobel Cripps, honoured for her work in Moscow on the Cripps mission to Joseph Stalin and holder of many other honours including the Special Grand Cordon of the Order of the Brilliant Star of China, First Class, for her work accompanying her husband on his wartime mission to Chiang Kai-shek's government.
So imagine the tongues which wagged when Peggy Cripps, the apple of her parents' eye, went off, headstrong, and married her "Black Man from the Gold Coast". Later, Joe Appiah was to tell me with his disarming, hooting laugh,
Perhaps it was not so much even that Peggy was marrying a black man, but that the particular black man, me, was thought to be a bit of a "bounder". Frankly, I was a bit of a man about town at that age and that town was London and not Oxford!
In 1956 I went to Ghana in the Christmas holidays with Brian Hatfield, later to be prominent for 40 years in the British timber trade, and Richard Layard, now Lord Layard, of the London School of Economics. Up-country, we were invited to the "palace" of the Denkyirahene by the head of the Denkyira tribe and a lieutenant of the Asantehene, the tribal leader of Kumasi, who sent a message to Joe Appiah that we would like to see him. Peggy invited us enthusiastically to her home, a warm establishment crawling with infants, some of whom seemed to be hers.
It was a jolly occasion. Though she was fascinated by news from the UK she did not crave it. We thought Africa had captured and captivated her. The one uneasy note was her apprehension of what the Osagyefo, Kwame Nkrumah, then at the height of his international fame, and John Tettegah, the powerful, sinister trade-union leader, might do to the Ashanti people and her outspoken, dissenting, reckless husband in particular.
Alex Kwapong, first class honours classical scholar of King's College, Cambridge, and then vice-chancellor of Ghana's most élite university, told me that Joe Appiah was not his favourite fellow Ghanaian, being a little too frivolous, but to his credit he had made Peggy happy, while she, by her intelligence and personality, had done a great deal of good in his part of the world for the dignity of Africans and relations between Africans and Europeans.
Her citation as MBE in 1996 was "for services to UK/Ghanaian relations and community welfare". Peggy Appiah was a significant force for the good.Reuse content